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Jonny Hunter previews 4th Biannual Midwest Bike Polo Champeenships in Madison

Teams to compete in 'Thunderdome' at Reynolds Park on Saturday

By Kristian Knutsen

Isthmus Daily Page, May 2, 2008

When a trio of mad bike polo players -- Jonny Hunter, Ben Hunter, and Kev Walsh -- made their way to Washington, D.C. last weekend to compete in the East Coast Polo Invitational, the last thing they expected was to get caught up in the hullabaloo surrounding this year's White House Press Correspondents' Association dinner. That's exactly where they found themselves, though, as they approached their accommodations at the Washington Hilton Hotel, and wound up in the midst of an armada of limos and SUVs, security personnel, and attendees like noted Beltway journo Pamela Anderson.

“Needless to say, we couldn't drive our 1985 Volvo with the homemade-artillery-looking thing mounted on the roof into the underground parking,” explains Walsh in his report on their trip to the tournament. So he approached an earpiece-wielding suit to learn more about the scene.

“The Secret Service-looking person that I chose was not in fact a member of the SS, but was the driver for Pamela Anderson,” Walsh notes. “I know this only because as I was about to open my mouth to ask him what the hell was going on, a certain busty lady was walking up towards me, in the space between the two rows of double-parked cars where i was standing. ‘Hey wassup?’ I asked. ‘Hey, how you doin'’ she replied, and crawled into the limousine in front of our car.”

They eventually made it into the hotel, though, and got some sleep before the tournament action started on Saturday, April 27. The team tore through the double-elimination bracket, triumphing in every match through the winner’s bracket before a loss to a New York City team in the finals. They subsequently lost a rain-soaked heartbreaker to a Philadelphia squad they had beaten once already and ended up with a third-place finish. Walsh also published a photo gallery from the invitational, which the Madison team used as a warm-up for the big home-turf tournament in town this weekend.

mad bike polo is playing host to the 4th Biannual Midwestern Bike Polo Champeenships, which will be held at the “Thunderdome” on the near east side of Madison on Saturday, May 3. This auspiciously-named venue is actually a string of tennis courts, situated on top of a city water station in Reynolds Park. More than a dozen teams from around the Midwest will meet there to determine the best of the Midwest, and the local team consisting of Hunter, Hunter, and Walsh will be defending their win at the 3rd Biannual Champeenships held last October in Milwaukee.

The mad bike polo crew was profiled in Isthmus last week by David Medaris, who introduced the trio and took a look at their bikes, gameplay, and rivalry with Milwaukee. Jonny Hunter talks with The Daily Page this week in an email interview about this weekend’s tournament, a switch to small ball polo, and their home at the “Thunderdome.”

The Daily Page: What's the new style of polo that you're playing now?
Hunter: Basically, there’s a smaller ball; we use a street hockey ball. One of the main differences is that a shot must be made with the front end of the mallet. The mallets are made out of ski poles attached to two-inch ABS Gas Tubing. The game is a lot more about shooting and the defense now. It took us a while to pick up, but I'm feeling pretty good about the game right now.

What kind of statement did you send with your third place finish at the East Coast Polo Invitational last weekend?
It was pretty important for Madison to do well. It was only because of a bizarre bracket format that we didn't take second place. We transitioned to a new style of game two months ago so we could play in tournaments like this. There has been a lot of discussion about which form of bike polo was better and we were really happy to come in to a tournament like this and be really competitive.

I think the fly-over states involved had a bit of a chip on our shoulders and it felt good to knock off top teams from NYC, Philly and DC, teams that have played this style for the past four years. We will only get better from this point out, and I think that we are considered contenders in any tournament we enter. The team from Milwaukee came in fourth at the tournament as well, and I think that it shows that the league we have set up here in the Midwest is really strong and will be bringing quality teams to every tournament here on out.

How many teams do you think will end up competing in the championships? Where are they from?
Last I checked there were going to be 15 teams out from about six to eight cities. We will see if everyone comes out, but most of the teams will be from Madison, Milwaukee, Chicago and St. Louis.

How many teams will be from Madison? As of now we have three solid teams, each of which I think can advance to the bracket round. Madison has a really solid group of players, even though we lost one an injury and another is currently in Berlin.

Why is the tournament going to be played with the smaller ball?
We are playing this tournament small ball because Milwaukee and Chicago converted to it, and Madison was pretty much forced to follow suit. It is a good thing in the long run, because now more cities are going to come to our tournament and we are part of the larger bike polo community. I would have liked to see the big ball bike polo get a little more acceptance on the coast, but after awhile it was pretty obvious that we were going to have to change because they were not.

What makes the Reynolds Park courts a "Thunderdome?"
I’m not really sure, other then the aspect that it is a caged court and has a bit of dome feeling too it. When there is a lot of spectators there it feels pretty awesome to be surrounded by people cheering and yelling, and kind of seems the appropriate name for it. I guess someone called it that and it stuck. It works well for us because it is a water reservoir that is kept at a temperature above freezing, so it melts the snow off and we can play through most winter days here.

The current weather forecast is calling for a chance of rain on Saturday. How do varying weather conditions impact the game and its play?
It hurt us in D.C. that the last two games we played were in the rain. We play really fast and balance is a huge part of our game, so the rain limited that a bit and the other teams took advantage with better shooting.

We will play rain or shine, and I'm guessing it won't affect us too much. The surface on the "Thunderdome" is pretty porous and won't be as slippery as it was in D.C. We put on a tournament in February, when the weather was miserable and it sleeted and snowed all day. It was one of my favorite tournaments ever, though, because teams had to make adjustments. They did, and everyone had a really great time.

What other events do you have planned to accompany the competition this weekend?
Most of the teams are coming in late Friday night so we aren't doing too much in terms of a pre-party but we will be hosting breakfast, lunch and dinner for participants on Saturday, and then a bit of an after-party. By the time it is over most everyone is just completely exhausted, though, so the parties tend to wrap up pretty quickly. Food is our thing for tournaments, so we try to focus on that. Just Coffee is going to bring out the coffee cart and we are hoping to have some fun prizes given out throughout the day.

What do you have to say to the Milwaukee polo players competing here this weekend?
They are really gunning for us right now. At the same time we have become really close friends with them, and I was cheering harder then anyone else for them on the side lines in D.C. When one players bike failed during a game, I grabbed mine and gave it to him to help him finish the match.

One of their best players is moving soon, and I think this will be the last time where Madison vs. Milwaukee will be the main narrative of the tournament. With the expanding competition level the rivalry will suffer a bit, and I will miss that, but I'm sure that we will have some pretty intense matches well into the future.

The 4th Biannual Midwest Bike Polo Champeenships kicks off in Reynolds Park with a breakfast and session of pickup games at 9:30 a.m. The tournament is scheduled to get underway later in the morning, and will consist of a round robin followed by a playoff bracket to the finals. As detailed in the rules for the weekend, the games will last twelve minutes, or until one team scores five points.

The schedule for the championships follows:

    9:30 a.m. -- Breakfast and pickup games
    10:30 a.m. -- Announcements
    10:45 a.m. -- Round Robin begins
    1 p.m. -- Lunch
    3 p.m.-ish -- Playoff Bracket begins
    6 p.m.-ish -- Finals

The fun will end with a dinner followed by the after-party at Mickey’s Tavern on Willy Street, appropriately located right on the bike path. A chance of showers is in the cards for Saturday, but a little rain won’t deter the tournament from proceeding.

“There is quite a bit of room for spectators to watch,” says Hunter of their home at the Thunderdome. “I'm finding as the quality of the game has gone up, it has become a lot more enjoyable to watch. There were about 150 people in Milwaukee last fall, and hopefully that many will show up here.”




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